Okinawa is slowly making a name for itself on the top scuba diving destinations in the world on the international scene. However, the details about where to go diving and travel around the islands remain unknown to most visitors and scuba divers outside Japan. Even if I covered in details my different trips from Naha to Yonaguni, it would be fair to ask me, “what would be the best itinerary if I want to experience some of the best diving in Okinawa in one trip”?
This is why I thought it was time, after travelling 3 times to the southernmost prefecture of Japan, to share my ultimate itinerary for those who can go scuba diving in Japan for at least two weeks. I recommend three weeks in total if you have never been to Japan before. Let me show you how you can scuba dive my top 5 diving spots in Japan by visiting 4 islands. I also explain in detail how you can make the most of your time as a scuba diver who cannot fly anytime, by using the extensive network of ferries linking the islands in the Okinawa Prefecture.
Map of my Okinawa Itinerary
You will find below the map of my 2-week island-hopping trip in Okinawa going through:
- Naha, Okinawa Island
- Tokashiki Island, Kerama Islands National Park
- Yonaguni Island, Yaeyama Islands
- Ishigaki Island, Yaeyama Islands
- Taketomi Island, Yaeyama Islands
1 – Naha: 2 days
Naha is the capital of the prefecture of Okinawa which stretches from the main island of Okinawa, Okinawa, located in the Okinawa Islands (you still follow me?) to the Yaeyama Islands which includes Ishigaki and Yonaguni, via the Miyako Islands in the middle.
Due to a rich history includes a long period of being the independent Kingdom of the Ryukyu Islands, Okinawa still feels like Japan but has a local culture that differs in many ways from the mainland. In that sense, Naha, which also was the capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom is the ideal gateway to start a trip to Okinawa.
Diving in Okinawa main island
Thanks to the numerous dive centres located in the city, it is actually easier to go scuba diving in Okinawa main island from Naha. Dive centres staff will pick you up in the morning to take you to the best dive sites around the island; hence you will save the cost and time of renting yourself a car. If you are a beginner diver, the Blue Cave of Cape Maeda will be a good option, but be aware it tends to be crowded.
If you are an advanced diver, I warmly recommend going scuba diving in Manza Dream Hole which has a stunning colourful coral reef. It isn’t usually on their schedule, but ask for a quick stop at Cape Manzamo since the views of the cliffs and arch is the most beautiful landscape I saw around the island.
What to do in Naha?
At your arrival and after your dives I recommend visiting the area of Kokusai Dori. If the main street is mainly about souvenirs shops and tourist restaurants, it’s by going sideways from there you will find hidden gems. It’s quite unbelievable that it took me a second trip to Naha to discover the market area hidden at the conjunction of long covered passages starting from Kokusai Avenue.
Another area worth the visit is Tsuboya Yachimun, the pottery street, just behind the market. A visit to all the tiny ceramics shops is a delight for the eyes, and chances are you won’t resist buying a more tasteful souvenir than what you can find on Kokusai Dori.
Despite the terrible fire accident at Shuri Castle in 2019, you can still visit the gardens around its fortifications. Hence, if you have some time (it is 20 minutes walking from the last station of the monorail line), it is still worth a visit.
Where to stay in Naha?
If you need more comfort, but you want to keep it in a reasonable budget, the Estinate hotel has single and double rooms at affordable prices from 60€ a night. My room was minimalist but stylish, with a comfy bed and desk perfect for me to edit my underwater pictures.
The hotel lobby is super cosy, and there is a bar/restaurant with plenty of delicious and healthy local food to try with an Okinawan Orion beer. You can also try their BBQ formula (they have a veggie option too) on their terrace at the backside of the hotel.
I couldn’t try their mouth-watering breakfast with their big pancakes and fresh fruits because I left too early in the morning to go scuba diving, but they kindly packed for me a delicious veggie/omelette sandwich I ate on the road.
2 – Tokashiki: 3 days
You can scuba dive in the Kerama Shoto National Park directly from Naha thanks to the Charter boats leaving each morning for a 3 tank trip. Still, honestly, after my last trip, I realised it is way better to go directly on-site. The islands are fantastic natural havens with paradise-like beaches and great snorkelling, which you won’t find in Naha. Besides, I found the dive sites near Tokashiki west coast were maybe the best of all the places I scuba dived around Japan with many turtles and beautiful coral and gorgonians. It is so closed from Naha and easy to get there by ferry that it is almost easier than going north to Onna for instance.
Diving in the Kerama Shoto National Park
Excellent visibility, stunning coral reefs and turtles everywhere, how not to fall for Tokashiki diving? With a short boat ride of about 10 to 15 minutes, you can access from Aharen harbour some of the best diving in the Kerama Islands and maybe just some of the best diving in Japan. The underwater photographer will also appreciate the number and diversity of sea anemones and anemonefish that can be found in the waters of the national park.
Where to stay on Tokashiki Island?
The ferry arrives on Tokashiki east coast, but I recommend you to stay on the west coast, near Aharen Beach, since most scuba diving centres and the best dive sites are on that side. I stayed at Marine Palace, which is not a luxury hotel contrary to what its name may make you think, but a simple but lovely Japanese style hotel with great hospitality. The Japanese breakfast in the morning was huge and delicious, and the host offers his guests to drive them in the morning to Tokashiku Beach, where you can snorkel with turtles. Since it was only 5 minutes walking away from the dive centre and most cafés and izakayas, I couldn’t ask for more.
3 – Yonaguni: 3 days
Yonaguni is simply the most legendary spot of Okinawa for scuba divers. It is usually the reason why people hear about scuba diving in Okinawa for the first time. However, what most people ignore is that Yonaguni island is far from the mainland of Okinawa, 508 km from Naha to be exact. Indeed, Yonaguni is the westernmost island of Japan and is actually closer to Taiwan by being just a bit more than 100 km away. With its endemic horse species and green grass ranches, it isn’t the regular tropical island you would expect.
Diving in Yonaguni
In the winter season, if you are an advanced diver with at least 100 dives and experienced with currents, you may give it a try to see the schooling hammerhead sharks while diving in Yonaguni. Be aware that I saw them five times out of nine.
But the main highlight is the Yonaguni Monument or Kaitei Iseki in Japanese. Surrounded by myths and opposing scientific studies, despite its sharp lines and geometrical shapes, the truth is nobody knows for sure what this massive stone monument is. In any case, you won’t be disappointed. The pictures don’t even do justice to what it really feels to be there. Like for the hammerhead shark dives, currents are strong, so some experience in scuba diving in such conditions is required.
Where to stay on Yonaguni Island?
- Omoro Minshuku: This is a charming guesthouse in Sonai village, contrary to Mosura Guesthouse, you will have more shops and options to eat out in Sonai. Simple accommodation in Japanese style rooms. They offer a package of 1 night with dinner and breakfast at 6,200 ¥ (about £43 / 50€). Knowing dinner in any izakaya of Sonai will cost around 3,000 ¥, this is a good deal.
- Ailand Hotel: If money is not an issue, then stay at the only proper hotel of the island that you can easily book online in English. The staff of the dive centre picked up a few divers every day on our way to Irizaki harbour. It looked spotless with a large restaurant inside. Prices start from 10,260 ¥ per night (about £72 / 83€).
4 – Ishigaki: 3 days
There is no better place to finish a trip to Okinawa than Ishigaki. Thanks to the opportunity to scuba dive with manta rays all year round and the beautiful natural scenery, the “stonewall” island offers a perfect balance of peaceful and lively. The great advantage of Ishigaki is the numerous ferry connections to all the Yaeyama Islands. In 3 days, you won’t be able to visit them all but don’t miss the opportunity to explore Taketomi-Jima, only a 10-minute boat ride away, on your last day before flying back to mainland Japan.
Diving in Ishigaki
Diving in Ishigaki is famous for its frequent encounters with manta rays all year round. Be aware that the best spots for manta rays are located near Kabira Bay and are mostly accessible between April and October. Manta Rays can still be found southward in the waters of Kuroshima or Iriomote islands during wintertime.
Beyond the underwater ambassadors of Ishigaki, the dive sites around Taketomi and Kuro Islands are a delight for passionate divers with turtles, white-tip sharks and also a large collection of colourful nudibranchs. I was lucky enough to also witness the giant cuttlefish spawning season at the beginning of March on the west coast of Ishigaki.
Where to stay on Ishigaki Island?
- Chura Cucule Hostel: This cosy hostel is about 10 minutes walking from the town centre. What might look like a disadvantage is actually a benefit. The hostel is further from the souvenir shops but closer to local grocery stores. I made good use of their fully equipped kitchen thanks to the proximity of the JA Farmer’s market and enjoyed way more space in my single room for slightly cheaper than at Blue Cabin which is by the harbour. Without a doubt, Chura Cucule is one of the best hostels I have stayed at in Japan.
- Sora Yado Guesthouse: My address in Kabira. They offer western twin rooms and Japanese tatami rooms in a lovely 1 story house with a view of the swimming pool of the neighbour dive centre. It is conveniently located halfway between Kabira Bay and Sukuji Beach. I stayed 3 nights as a base during my mini road trip around Ishigaki Island. Note they offer free parking, which is not the case when you stay in Ishigaki City. I also advise you to go grocery shopping before leaving Ishigaki City.
How to get around the Okinawa Archipelago?
From mainland Japan to Okinawa
If you feel adventurous and have enough time, let’s say at least a month in Japan, you can actually reach Naha without flying. You can take the train all the way down to the island of Kyushu and take a series of ferries from Kagoshima. To be fair, this is not what most of you will do, and even I, who wanted to try it at least once, couldn’t find the time to do it yet.
The vast majority of foreign visitors will have to arrive first to the international airports of Japan such as Narita or Haneda in Tokyo, or Osaka. The advantage is by adding a week to your trip, you can easily explore Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto on your way in and then your way back from Okinawa.
In Tokyo, the domestic flights to Okinawa, Miyakojima and Ishigaki leave from Haneda Airport, which is the closest to the city centre (only 45 minutes from Hamamatsuchō station thanks to the monorail train).
For information, you can also fly direct from neighbouring countries to Naha from Taipei, Seoul or Hong Kong for example. To find at which dates you can find the best prices on flights, you can easily compare prices on trip.com.
From Naha to the Kerama Islands National Park
Once in Naha, the best option is to stay in town and book a scuba diving centre that will pick you up and drive you to the best dive sites around the main island of Okinawa. Thanks to the monorail line linking the airport to the city centre, it’s easy, quick and cheap.
From Naha Harbour, you can take the ferries going to the Kerama Islands. I recommend going to Tokashiki since I found the dive sites stunning, maybe the best of what I saw in Japan, and it is only 35 minutes away! Make sure to book your ticket online before heading to the harbour. After visiting Tokashiki, you take the ferry back to Naha Harbour and make your way to Naha Airport. The monorail station is 20 minutes walking away from the harbour. If this is too much for you due to your scuba diving bag, there are plenty of taxis around.
Getting around the Yaeyama Islands
There is, unfortunately, no ferry linking the Okinawa Islands to Miyakojima or Ishigaki. However, in Ishigaki, you can take a boat to Yonaguni. Knowing the flights to Yonaguni are only from Naha or Ishigaki, the best option is to fly directly from Naha to Yonaguni.
Once in Yonaguni, the dive centre you booked can pick you up at the airport. Besides your dives, I recommend renting a car at least for half a day to make a mini road trip (it takes only 2 hours to drive around the island). Make sure you have an international driving licence (some nationalities like me have to get an official Japanese translation – you can do it in Tokyo, Osaka or Naha at the Japanese Automotive Federation for 3,000 ¥).
The ferry between Yonaguni and Ishigaki only runs twice a week. It leaves Yonaguni on Wednesdays and Saturdays (one day before from Ishigaki). In this case, no need to book the ferry ticket in advance you just buy the ticket 2 hours before it leaves.
Once in Ishigaki, you have the choice between Ishigaki City and Kabira Bay to go scuba diving. Be aware that Kabira Bay dive centres only open in the high season from April to October. There is a decent bus network on the island which can take you to most places worth going. Thanks to a daily pass, it is an excellent value for money. You can also take other ferries to the other Yaeyama Islands, but the best option on this trip is to hop for the day on Taketomi-Jima, which is only 10 minutes away.
Ishigaki has an international airport which doesn’t only fly to Tokyo, Osaka and many other big cities in Japan, it also has some connections with Hong-Kong and Taiwan. Hence, there is no need to fly back to Naha at the end of your trip.
When is the best time to visit Okinawa?
As a subtropical region of Japan, water in Okinawa is 20°C at the coldest during wintertime and 30°C in the summer. However, the Yaeyama Islands, which are more south, enjoy a minimum water temperature of 24°C even in the middle of the winter.
Okinawa is seasonally subject to strong typhoons in June and September. As a rule of thumb, October is the best period to go scuba diving in Okinawa; water is warm, you avoid the crowds and typhoons usually are gone.
Be also aware of the official tourist season which goes from April to October. When I went to Ishigaki in February and March because I wanted to scuba dive with the hammerhead sharks in Yonaguni, most beaches were closed and/or not cleaned because of this. If like me you are not too much into sunbathing you won’t care, but if you are, you may want to consider this fact into account.
If you want to avoid the crowds and higher costs, the peak season you want to stay away from are Chinese New Year (February), Japanese Golden week (end of April/beginning of May), Obon (beginning of August) and the Silver week (September).
To complete your trip, have a look at these additional pages about travelling and scuba diving in Okinawa and Japan in general :
- Visit Tokyo on your way to the Pacific Islands
- Learning Japanese to scuba dive in Japan
- Izu Peninsula diving: my top 5 dive sites
Is something still missing from this article? Do you have any questions?
Please let me know in the comments, and I’ll do my best to help!
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